We are in the midst of the worst flu season in 10 years, with almost every state in the union reporting widespread outbreaks. Yet with all the headlines about this year’s super-flu, some misconceptions remain. We talked to three experts to sort flu fact from fiction.
1. The flu vaccine will not give you flu
The flu shot does not contain live viruses, so it’s impossible for you to get sick from them, says microbiologist Ted Myatt, Ph.D., senior scientist at the consulting firm Environmental Health and Engineering and director of research compliance at University of Rhode Island. “Although the nasal-spray version of the vaccine does contain the live virus, it’s manipulated so you get the immune reaction you’re looking for but the virus is not strong enough to make you sick,” says Myatt.
2. The flu shot does not always work right away
One reason people might believe they’ve gotten sick from a flu shot is that it takes up to two weeks for it to be effective, plenty of opportunity for you to contract a bug in the meantime. “Your body needs time to mount an immune response to the vaccine, and it takes a while to get the highest level of protection,” says Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D., a pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
3. You can still get the flu, even if you’ve gotten a flu shot
Each year, many months before the start of flu season, experts choose the three strains that will comprise the following year’s flu shot. “It’s their best guess; they don’t know for sure what strains will hit the population,” according to Myatt. So even with a flu shot, you could still contract a strain that wasn’t in this year’s batch. Also, the flu shot is only 60 to 75 percent effective. Still, “it drastically lowers your chances of getting the flu, and is still the best line of defense,” says Dr. Trachtenberg.
4. You still need the vaccine even if you’ve already gotten the flu this year
Remember the business about there being many strains of flu? “You can get flu A in December and flu B in March,” says Dr. Trachtenberg. Just because you’ve gotten sick and developed antibodies for one strain doesn’t mean you’ll be protected against the others.
5. Flu is not just dangerous for the elderly
Sure, you know the flu can be deadly, but isn’t that just a risk if you’re old? It turns out pregnant women and small children, especially those under 6 months old, are also at increased risk. “Pregnant women are a lot more at risk because pregnancy takes a toll on your respiratory system,” says Siobhan Dolan, M.D., an OB-GYN at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, medical advisor to the March of Dimes, and author of Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby. “You’re more likely to be hospitalized with flu.” This, along with studies that show the fetus is passed some immunity, is why the flu shot is recommended for pregnant women by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Small children, especially those under 6 months for whom immunization is not recommended, are also at a higher risk, because their immune systems are still developing.
6. Cold weather does not cause the flu
Your mom was wrong—you don’t get sick from going outside without a hat. However, there’s no denying that winter is flu season. Why? “Researchers have found that the virus survives best in low humidity, and relative humidity is lower in the winter than in the summer,” says Myatt. “Also, indoor spaces have less humidity, so you have more of a chance of contracting the flu when you spend more time inside.” To cut down the chances of your family getting the flu, it’s smart to add a humidifier to your home, along with insisting on frequent hand-washing.
7. Stomach flu is not flu
The term “stomach flu” is a misnomer. The influenza virus is different from the kind that causes a stomach bug like rotavirus. However, the common flu can mimic a stomach bug by causing nausea in kids, says Dr. Trachtenberg. And unfortunately, the flu shot does not provide any protection against one of these puke-fests.